HCMC Dining Guide

Friday, August 14, 2015

The Visa Run From Hell

The hated Vietnamese customs hall.
No man's land between Vietnam and Cambodia.
Since I work here as a freelancer, it appears to be impossible to obtain a Vietnamese work permit and the subsequent year-long visa. As a result I have to get a new visa on a regular basis. One way to do this is to go on a border run to the Cambodian border and back, which I did for the first time last weekend. The process was a complete nightmare, and illustrative of many of the problems with Vietnam’s tourism.

Local media has been full of recent stories lamenting Vietnam’s 12-month run of declining visitor numbers, although there was apparently an uptick in July. Officials, experts and members of the public have weighed in through multiple outlets, with some blaming pollution, scams and a lack of interesting tourism sites for the downward trend. Many, however, pointed to the inconvenient, expensive visa policies of the country, especially given the fact that many neighboring countries offer paid visas on arrival or, in the case of Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore, 30 days of free travel. Vietnam has recently waived visa fees for several countries, but the visas are only for 15 days, and the rest of us are still saddled with an infuriatingly bureaucratic and arbitrary process.

I took a public bus to the Moc Bai border gate (2.5 hours, 40,000 dong) with an approval letter for a three-month multiple-entry visa in hand. Walking into the customs hall, I was greeted by the sight of a mass of humanity in front of the exit counters, standing around in an amorphous blob. I overheard several conversations, and it was clear that no one knew what was going on. I stood in what I thought was a line, but after 20 minutes it had gone nowhere.

Eventually I realized that the assistants from the tour buses lined up outside were taking the passports of every passenger up to the front to get stamped, while the passengers waited for their name to be called, sweating in the hot, humid air of the hall. Since I was traveling individually, this was of no use to me. Finally I decided to just walk up to the ‘Way for Foreigners’ counter and hand the stone-faced official my passport. He stamped it immediately, and I had wasted a half hour standing around for nothing. There were no signs explaining this process, and no one to ask for help.

Afterwards I breezed through the entrance and exit procedures on the Cambodian side in about 10 minutes, and a few of the officials there even smiled.

It was time re-enter Vietnam after spending all of five minutes in another country, and the entrance customs hall offered a familiar scene: dozens of people standing around aimlessly while the bus attendants tried to get numerous passports stamped. I knew what to do (or so I thought), so I wallowed through the crowd to the foreigner counter and handed over my passport, visa approval letter and visa fee. A man standing next to the counter said I had to actually buy the visa elsewhere, and he pointed left. Directly at a wall. I had no idea what this meant, but he wasn’t interested in explaining. I went back outside but saw no visa office. After wandering around I asked another official where to go, and he pointed in a slightly less vague direction. I found a cluster of buildings and in a courtyard came across the visa on arrival office. Once again, there was no signage for this, apparently you are supposed to just know it’s hidden back there. This is where the nightmare truly began.

I approached the visa window and handed my relevant documents to the angry-looking official on the other side. He took one look at my approval letter and simply grunted, ‘No!’ My heart sank. I asked why and he just waved his hand. An English-speaking bus guide came up and explained that the official claimed my letter was a photocopy, not the original. I had received this letter directly from the immigration office in Saigon, and it was not a copy, but the official brushed me aside. I was now envisioning a life stuck in between the border posts of Cambodia and Vietnam. I had been nervous in the days leading up to this trip, as I know officials here can decide against things on a whim for no good reason, and my fears now seemed justified. I had no idea what the hell I was going to do if he refused to give me a visa, as I had already entered and exited Cambodia and was pretty sure you can't do it twice in one day.

The same bus guide told me to wait a while so the official could go to lunch, and then try again when he returned. I had no choice at this point, so I sat down in the heat and contemplated a future in international limbo.

A while later the official returned and handed me his phone, with someone who spoke English on the other end. The unknown man asked why I had photocopied my letter, as if this whole thing was my fault. I stated that I had done no such thing, and why did it matter anyway? The form still had the all-important red stamp and the signature of an immigration official. I wasn’t sure where this was going, but the official then randomly decided to actually approve my visa. I handed him $95, the three-month visa price which is posted right next to the office (as ruled by a government decree), and then he demanded another $5 with no explanation. Was this a bribe? Probably, but at this point I didn’t care, although I do wish I had gotten the official’s name so I could try to report him (not that I have any idea how to do that).

I hurried back to the customs hall and went straight to the foreigners counter with my fresh visa, but the official there (who also looked quite unhappy with life) pointed ambiguously into the crowd. I was getting pretty goddamn tired of people pointing at nothing, as if this provided good directions. I couldn’t figure out where I was supposed to go, and now there was a man following me around offering to take my passport to the counter to get it stamped. I said no, as this was something simple that I should be able to do myself, but it became clear that it’s impossible for an individual traveler to get their own passport to the counter. I relented, and he demanded $5. I was stunned; after overpaying for my visa I was now paying for a man to walk 10 fucking feet to a counter just because the immigration department can't get it's shit together and create some sort of semi-logical system. Everyone involved in the border process has their mouth to the money trough, and they are shameless in their exploitation of confused visitors. It's pathetic and embarrassing.

Anyway, the annoying man went straight to one of the counters, and my visa was stamped right away. Finally, stamped passport in hand, I headed to the exit of the awful customs hall as quickly as possible. On the way out there was yet another pissed-off looking official, whose job it was to check that every passport had actually been stamped. The front of my passport is rather worn out from use (you can barely even make out the seal of the U.S. on it), and he paused, inspecting it carefully. I felt like punching him, and thought I was about to run into another arbitrary bureaucratic snag. Thankfully he handed it back, and I was soon on the road to Saigon on another public bus (at least that part was straightforward). 

If this process was an advertisement for Vietnam, it was a horrible one. Every Vietnamese official I interacted with seemed miserable, if not downright mean. No one cares if visitors know what is going on, and they seem to have little interest in whether they make it into the country or not. I recently read an article in which a Vietnamese tourism official defended the sector in the country after Thanh Nien published an op-ed stating that Laos and Cambodia are moving ahead of Vietnam in terms of tourism development. The official disagreed and claimed that headlines would be made if a Vietnamese border official took a bribe, which I'm pretty sure happened to me. As usual, high-level officials here seem completely oblivious to the situation on the ground. I love living in Vietnam, but I can’t blame anyone if they don’t want to visit when an experience like this may welcome you.

The view from just inside Cambodia. Bavet, the border town, is full of shitty casinos.
Back into Vietnam.


  1. The visa issues you are having is not related to a 'normal' tourist.

  2. I feel so sorry for your experience. However, as I know, in case you enter Vietnam by bus, you must obtain a full visa in advance, not the visa approval letter which is used for air travelers to Vietnam only.